Last month we talked about living with less and how that can open up more freedom in our lives. In contrast, sometimes having more gives us less: less satisfaction with what we have, less fulfillment from life, and less bandwidth to pursue our dreams. Dozens of books on decluttering and minimalism are available to inspire you to let go of excess possessions.
One thing that isn’t often discussed, however, is the concept of digital clutter. Files and data streams don’t take up much physical space, but digital content sure eats up huge chunks of our time. This week, I’d like to explore a method for deciding how much is enough.
How do we create deliberate, healthy boundaries that respect our desire to connect with the people and world around us, without moving off-grid?
Because electronic files don’t have a large physical presence, it’s easy to be lulled into the idea that they don’t consume a big portion of our lives. However, when you examine all the content together, as well as how much time we devote to consuming it each day, the results are pretty shocking.
I invite you to take a quick inventory of how many minutes (or hours) you squander every day on the following sources:
Many of us have work-related communications which must be addressed. Yet our inboxes are also filled with advertisements and subscriptions vieing to hook our attention.
Social Media Feeds:
These started as a way to stay in touch with friends and family, but now they’re overrun with ads and other paid content. What’s more, the never-ending scroll bar keeps you chasing the next thing, rewarding your brain with a hit of dopamine for every click. And the carefully curated pictures and posts can cause us to question whether our own lives measure up.
We have access to a huge line-up of cable channels, audio/video streaming services, and podcast subscriptions. Despite our best intentions, it’s easy to get sucked in and lose a few hours of the day, given the variety and breadth of choices.
This deserves its own category, regardless of its delivery methods, because of the type of content and its effect on our moods. Modern journalism tends to focus on negative events that discourage a healthy optimism about the times we live in. News outlets battle to win our attention with sensationalized stories and divisive reporting.
As an avid reader, I’ve learned to maximize bookshelf space by purchasing ebooks. While the content of your Kindle or Nook may be fantastic, if the exposure to blue light is keeping you awake at night, it can be a problem.
This is the secret clutter barely anyone thinks about… If all our digital documents were printed out many of us would be drowning in paper. Sometimes knowing you’ve got disorganized files cluttering up your computer creates a background sense of stress every time you use your device.
When I first looked at all the sources of digital clutter in my life, I felt a bit overwhelmed. There was a never-ending stream of input that didn’t sleep or take a break—and it increased each time I turned it on. I stressed out trying to keep up and bemoaned my inability to set limits, yet I was afraid to shut it off completely for fear of missing out.
But even more, I realized the constant noise of information left me disconnected from my own life and the people around me. I’d start my morning bleary-eyed and groggy after staying up late watching the latest Netflix obsession. I noticed time scheduled for creative work would slip away answering unimportant emails. Or I had to ask my kids to repeat something because I was too caught up with someone else’s life on social media instead of fully participating in my own.
Too much digital input drains my vitality, and interrupts my engagement with the present moment. It steals away time I’d rather spend connected with my work and relationships.
I’ve lost countless hours to electronic media in one form or another. Hours that could have been spent pursuing my passion, doing meaningful work, creating deep connections with family and friends, or relaxing and reconnecting with my Authentic Self.
Can you pause and disconnect long enough to think about what you’re giving up every time you plug in:
Though sometimes we consciously decide to watch a show or work towards inbox zero, the trouble with digital content is the insidious way it slinks into our lives. Responding to the ding of an incoming message or a quick glance at the time on our phones can drift into minutes or hours caught in a daze, eyes glued to the screen. Below are some of the common times my attention is vulnerable to this type of digital creep, and I invite you to consider whether your valuable time is being hijacked in a similar fashion.
Moments when our digital boundaries might seem hazy:
It used to be we’d have daily opportunities to pause, rest, or reconnect with the world around us—in line at a checkout, sitting in an office reception room, when waiting on hold, or after placing our dinner order. Now, however, people whip out their phones, trying to cram in as much as possible in these small pockets of time. It’s become such a habit that reaching for your device first thing in the morning or checking it as your last act of the day is commonplace.
More often than I care to admit, a quick check on a digital device turns into hours following a newsfeed, stream of pictures, or thread of email responses. Without clear intentions and a firm boundary, it’s easy to get caught up in the never-ending presentation of information. This often happens because it feels easier to keep absorbing faux-urgent content rather than face the resistance surrounding a decision, action, or feeling that needs to be addressed.
Despite appearances on social media feeds, our lives aren’t filled with non-stop adventures and excitement. Nor are they meant to be.
The downtime we experience is there for a reason—to help us reflect on and process what is filling our days, as well as which direction we want to pursue. At first, these pauses can be remarkably uncomfortable though. Boredom allows us to notice places in our lives that feel lacking.
There’s an impulsive need to fill this space with other people’s content rather than looking deeply at what’s present. Yet doing so robs us of the experience of letting our natural imagination and problem-solving skills create something meaningful.
If you’re starting to experience a little discomfort about the amount of digital creep in your life, that’s a good sign. Most of us are taking in more than we want, and far from the ideal. The best way to decide if you need boundaries (or to tighten up those you already have) is by paying closer attention to where digital content intersects with your daily life.
Keep a notebook handy for a day or two, and write down every time you hop online or turn on a device. Comment on whether you’re fulfilling required tasks or simply seeking entertainment and distraction.
When I tried this as part of my own digital detox, I only made it through half a day…I was so frustrated by having to interrupt my work to document how often my attention wandered into mindless web surfing. I wanted to know how much time I was wasting, however, so I googled methods of digital tracking. And yes, I appreciate the irony. But there are services like Freedom and Moment, which will monitor your time online and enable you to evaluate your habits and usage.
I decided to push this experiment a little farther by using an app to track my mood at the same time. At random intervals during the day, I rated how I was feeling on a scale of 1-10, while making note of any recent online activity. I was curious if there was a correlation between my mood and whether my attention was focused in the real world or the digital one. Not surprisingly…I felt more content when I was connected with the world around me, and less so when I went online.
Experience what it feels like not to be in a state of constant consumption by creating a set of temporary limits.
Health experts talk about the benefits of a food-free period of time to allow our bodies to digest, rest, and repair. Whether that’s an overnight window, or a longer stretch, the pause from eating acts as a reset, so we don’t get caught up in an over-active cycle of feasting. A digital fast offers the same relief for our mental and emotional health.
Try experimenting with a digital fast of your own. Use the guide below to customize the level of detachment that’s right for you. To get started, follow these suggestions to experience how disconnecting changes the quality of your day…
The great thing about technology is that it’s designed to be customizable for the user. The same is true of your personal boundaries around its use.
You can create limits that are as rigid or flexible as you need. This might require deleting an app or social media channel that’s a particular challenge for your attention. Or it could simply mean turning off notifications and alerts when you need to focus on work.
And just as technology is continuously evolving, so too will our digital boundaries. Set aside a regular time to evaluate your digital footprint and reconsider your limits in order to pursue the life of your dreams.
After my digital detox experiment, I started scheduling an hour each quarter to reflect on my level of online engagement, and make small adjustments to my own usage. This month I’m working on weeding out old apps on my iPhone. They’re easy to re-download if I change my mind, but so far I’m loving the space and freedom of letting so many go.
Some of the other tweaks I’ve implemented include utilizing the Screen Time feature on my iPhone to monitor and set limits for certain apps, as well as using Waste No Time for Mac to restrict my internet browsing during work hours.
Download this week’s guide to arrange a digital fast day that works with your life circumstances, yet challenges you to loosen technology’s hold. Having a plan, connecting with your motivation, and knowing how to evaluate the experience are key to reconnecting with an authentic, offline life.
The amount of digital content that constitutes enough will vary from person to person. Some careers and families thrive on having more, while many individuals enjoy the benefits that come with less.
However, we can all profit from regular evaluations of what we choose to let into our lives. Part of the process of turning the dial back on our digital consumption is to see what life can (and maybe should) look like when we turn to ourselves and our communities for engagement.
What digital boundaries are important in your life?